The Monkees – Headquarters

Headquarters_-_The_Monkees

Part I: The Background

This right here is the stuff of rock and roll legend. The Monkees were originally conceived as a manufactured pop group to star in a TV show that capitalized on the success of The Beatles and their peers. Not only were the bulk of the songs written by professional songwriters like Neil Diamond, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, but the backing tracks were, for the most part, laid down by session musicians. That all changed with Headquarters; Davy, Micky, Mike, and Peter ceased to be mere performers and became a real band. That’s not to say the Monkees—especially Mike and Peter—didn’t have any musical chops prior to gaining creative control. But I believe Micky summed it up best: “The Monkees really becoming a band was like the equivalent of Leonard Nimoy really becoming a Vulcan.”

 

Part II: The Music

You Told Me: The album kicks off with a Mike Nesmith tune in which he demonstrates his flawless capability to merge country rock with psychedelic pop. Peter plays the banjo throughout the track, while the rest of the group provides flowery harmonies in the background. The song, like many other on the album, features Micky on drums. His drumming, while lacking polish, is passable enough that it doesn’t stand out. RATING: 7/10

I’ll Spend My Life With You: The fusion of country rock and psychedelia is sustained throughout the second track, a lighthearted love song that lacks any percussion save for Davy’s tambourine. Peter’s twinkling celeste solo accentuates the song’s doe-eyed innocence. This is typical fanfare for the Boyce and Hart song writing duo, and would’ve just as easily fit in on either of the previous albums. RATING: 7.5/10

Forget That Girl: Chip Douglas, who plays bass throughout the album, penned this dreamy tune—the guitar arpeggios and wistful sighs paired with Davy’s breathy vocal send the listener into a bit of a haze. Micky’s drums are buried quite low in the mix—perhaps this was an effort to hide his imperfections, but it winds up serving the song stylistically. From the Motown-esque bassline that begins the song to the mesmerizing backing vocals, this song’s bursting with pop sensibilities. RATING: 8/10

Band 6: So remember how I mentioned that The Monkees weren’t exactly used to functioning as a full-fledged band? Well this track’s a play on that concept—it’s a brief skit that showcases the band working out their kinks. Micky, in particular, has trouble keeping in time with the rest of the band. They finally manage to perform the Looney Tunes theme at the end of the skit, signifying their metamorphosis from imitators to the real thing. RATING: 2/3

You Just May Be The One: While Mike’s psychedelic wordplay is impeccable, he’s always been at his best when at his most country. Everything likeable about his compositions, from the varied rhythms to the memorable melodies to the show-stealing hooks, is compiled here into one of his finest offerings. As in the best of songs, it’s hard to tell which is the better hook: the playful verses or the harmony-drenched middle-eight. RATING: 9.5/10

Shades of Gray: A breathtaking ballad to rival the likes of the Rolling Stones’ “As Tears Go By”. Micky, Davy, and Peter all take turns singing leads on this exploration of morality. The song is a reflection on the disillusionment that comes with growing old and discovering that life isn’t as clear-cut as one was led to believe. We’ve got all of the trappings of a sentimental mid-sixties ballad: shining harmonies, solemn cellos, and even a French horn solo. The song features some of the strongest melodies in The Monkees’ catalogue, and it’s the simplicity of the lyrics that make them so powerful: “But today there is no day or night / Today there is no dark or light / Today there is no black or white / Only shades of gray.” RATING: 10/10

I Can’t Get Her Off Of My Mind: Here’s Davy at his most McCartney-esque. This decidedly British tune features a tack piano (basically a piano that sounds like a harpsichord). From a production standpoint, the song winds up sounding quite bare (and the piano really grates on the nerves). There’s an earlier version recorded the previous year that sounds much better. RATING: 4.5/10

For Pete’s Sake: An anthem for the summer of love. This wound up becoming the closing theme for the TV show. The lyrics, despite preaching love and understanding, remain quite shallow, much like the comparable “The Word” by the Beatles. This song comes across as an attempt to appeal to the hippie counterculture—perhaps a plea by the band to be taken more seriously as artists rather than as frivolous pop stars. Does it succeed? Who cares—it’s damn catchy. RATING: 7.5/10

Mr. Webster: This song tells the story of the titular Mr. Webster—a banker who, despite having thwarted many a robbery over the course of his career, is taken for granted by his employer, Mr. Frizby. Frizby throws a retirement party for Webster, who doesn’t show and reveals in a letter that he has made off with all of the bank’s money. Webster maintains a façade of normalcy, and that same restraint manifests in Micky’s vocal, though there is a darker undercurrent to the music, which represents Webster’s suppressed frustration. RATING: 8/10

Sunny Girlfriend: There’s only one Nesmith composition on the Monkees’ six classic albums that falls flat, and it’s this one. This one’s more grounded in rock and roll than in country, though there are some folksy harmonies towards the end. But it never quite manages to establish a melody, and as a result fails to leave an impression. RATING: 5/10

Zilch: A highly rhythmic spoken-word piece in which the Monkees mutter nonsense phrases over top of one another. Their voices are layered onto the track one by one, each time adding to the song’s rhythmical texture. The second half of the piece repeats the same, albeit twice as fast—the song descends into chaos as they stumble over their words and wind up uttering gibberish. And yes, it’s every bit as awesome as it sounds. RATING: 3/3

No Time: Micky’s line from the previous track (“Never mind the furthermore, the plea is self-defence) resurfaces here. “No Time” is pure, unfiltered rock and roll, though one does have to question whether Micky can pull off a rough enough vocal tone to be taken seriously on a song like this. Regardless, it’s all in good fun—there’s even a callout to The Beatles’ “Honey Don’t”, with Micky quoting the line “Rock on George for Ringo, one time.” RATING: 6/10

Early Morning Blues and Greens: This song encapsulates that feeling of winding down at the end of a crazy journey. Every time I hear this song, I can’t help but imagine a much more adventurous—and much more psychedelic—album preceding it than the one we’ve got here. There’s a bit of an observational, Ray Davies–style lyric going on, and Davy’s vocal is appropriately mellow. RATING: 7.5/10

Randy Scouse Git: Known in Britain as “Alternate Title”—the original title means horny idiot from Liverpool. Not only is this the first Micky Dolenz–penned track to appear on a Monkees album, it’s also the best. The lyrics demonstrate the clash between generations. The verses are frivolous and at times nonsensical, detailing the aftermath of a party and working in yet another reference to The Beatles: “The four kings of EMI are sitting stately on the floor.” The verses have a jaunty, music hall flavour, making it that much more shocking when Micky starts slamming away on the timpani and shouting the chorus. The chorus embodies the voice of the older generation, decrying that the youth ought to conform to be more like them: “Why don’t you cut your hair? / Why don’t you live up there? Why don’t you do what I do, see what I feel when I care?” The final verse is sung in scat vocals before the timpani transitions us into one final, explosive iteration of the chorus. If you ask me, there isn’t a finer song in the entire Monkees songbook. RATING: 10/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: While I’m usually critical of band photos, this time I’ll let it slide. The cover depicts the four Monkees and nothing else; it’s symbolic of the fact that this is a self-contained album (or at least as close as they ever got to releasing one). So even if the album could have benefited from some more experimental production, it accomplishes the task of putting the band front and centre. SCORE: 4/5

Artistic Merit: It’s the spirit that counts. No, this isn’t some art rock magnum opus, but The Monkees fought long and hard to gain creative control over their musical output and to be able to play on their own records. And if that isn’t commendable, I don’t know what is. SCORE: 4/5

Flow: Many consider this to be the band’s strongest album. There’s never really a dull moment. But it’s definitely not the most cohesive. It lacks thematic unity, and even the tone shifts jarringly from one song to the next. Don’t get me wrong—the sequencing is spectacular. Every song is exactly where it should be on the album. It’s just that they don’t necessarily all belong on the same album. SCORE: 6/10

CLOSING REMARKS: If we’re going to single out one of the Monkees’ albums as their best, this is it. But more important is what this album represents: the strive for artistic credibility. If your new to the Monkees, start your journey here. You won’t be disappointed.

FINAL SCORE: 76

 

 

 

 

 

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The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Are You Experienced?

Are_You_Experienced_-_US_cover-edit

Part I: The Background

Virtuoso guitarist Jimi Hendrix—known for, among other things, playing his guitar behind his back and with his teeth (not simultaneously, of course)—played with a number of R&B groups before the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Most notably, he served as the guitarist for the Isley Brothers and Little Richard. After struggling to make it in the R&B scene, one fateful night, former Animals bassist Chas Chandler, who was now scouting talent, showed up at the club in which Jimi was performing, having been recommended to do so by Keith Richards’ then girlfriend. Impressed by Jimi’s talent, he took Jimi under his wing. Working together, they recruited Noel Redding (bass) and Mitch Mitchell (drums), and thus, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was born. The band’s debut LP, like many 60s albums, exists in two configurations: the UK version and the US version. The US version excises Red House, Can You See Me, and Remember from the running order in favour of Purple Haze, Hey Joe, and The Wind Cries Mary. The album is, without a doubt, one of the landmark albums of the psychedelic era and of the 60s as a whole.

 

Part II: The Music

Foxy Lady: In many ways, this song’s a perfect summation of everything that the Jimi Hendrix Experience was. It’s a funky, blues-influenced psychedelic rock tune with an edgy, muddy sound. The melodic hook lies in the guitar riff rather than in the vocals—Hendrix doesn’t so much song as he does talk the lyrics in a tone that’s simultaneously aggressive and suggested. There’s an intense urgency to the rhythm guitar, and while Hendrix does deliver a solo steeped in the blues tradition, he never overindulges. RATING: 8/10

Manic Depression: While most lyricists would fill a song about depression with complex metaphors and dense imagery, Jimi’s lyrics are rather on the nose here. That’s because the song probably isn’t actually about depression—the third verse reveals this to be nothing more than a bluesy song about heartbreak: “Woman so weary, the sweet cause in vain / You make love, you break love, it’s all the same.” Though the vocal is more melodic, once again, the hook lies in the guitar riff. RATING: 7/10

Red House: Twangy, almost metallic guitar screeches segue into a full-on twelve-bar blues. Jimi simultaneously shows off his chops while settling into a comfortable groove; while his unorthodox guitar licks bend and twist in unexpected ways, you can tell that he feels right at home playing the blues. The lyrics tell a funny little story about a man on the outs with his woman, who at the end of the song decides to turn to her sister for comfort instead. RATING: 7.5/10

Can You See Me: For a nice change of pace, the vocals take to the forefront. “Can You See Me” is a hard-rocking tune that bridges the gap between rhythm and blues and psychedelic rock. Mitch’s drumming stands out here more than anything else. The vocal, however, is scarcely melodic; at its core, this is still very much a blues song. RATING: 6.5/10

Love or Confusion: Psychedelic rock in its rawest, purest form, from the Eastern-influenced drone that kicks off the song, to the cosmic imagery pervasive throughout the lyrics, to the hazy, echoey production. If only Noel could’ve harmonized with Jimi; the latter’s bare vocal just barely manages to carry the tune. RATING: 7.5/10

I Don’t Live Today: Are we sure this one isn’t Manic Depression? For such a downer of a song, this one’s sure got a lot of energy—the refrain of “I don’t live today” is one of the most heavy-hitting on the entire album. The guitar during the solo almost sounds as if it’s being played underwater. The last (and best) third of the song descends into chaos as Jimi experiments with feedback. His dreary voice delivers monologues every now and then as the music fades in and out: “There ain’t no life nowhere.” RATING: 8.5/10

May This Be Love: While “I Don’t Live Today” is the most exciting track on the album, “May This Be Love” is the most pleasant. It’s the strongest track melodically, though the lack of an interesting progression during the middle eight feels like a squandered opportunity. The song’s lyrical imagery is centred around a waterfall. While waterfalls are inherently chaotic, when viewed from afar, the waterfall evokes a feeling of tranquility: “I can see my rainbow calling me / Through the mist of my waterfall.” This album is preoccupied with that duality of bliss and chaos, of love and confusion, of mania and depression. RATING: 7.5/10

Fire: And we’re back in business with another hard-rocking psychedelic tune. Noel and Jimi trade call-and-response vocals during the quite catchy hook. Apparently, the song was inspired by Jimi warming himself by the fireplace in Noel’s mother’s home after a show, but that of course doesn’t mean the lyrics aren’t also sexual in nature: “You say your mum ain’t home / It isn’t my concern / Just come play with me and you won’t get burned.” RATING: 7/10

Third Stone from the Sun: This is a drawn-out, experimental psychedelic piece that starts off quite well but quickly descends into that chaos. Ultimately, this is a jazzy psychedelic jam, though there are some nice mellow bits near the beginning. Once again, it’s that juxtaposition of calm and chaotic. Jimi and Chas deliver bits of science fiction oriented dialogue throughout. RATING: 5.5/10

Remember: This song wants very hard to be a pop song but is too constrained by its bluesy backbone to fully realize its potential. Nevertheless, this brief injection of melody is much appreciated. The banality of the lyrics, however, works against the song’s appeal—yeah, we get it, your mockingbird doesn’t sing anymore now that your love has left you. RATING: 6/10

Are You Experienced?: The title track is decidedly psychedelic, featuring an Eastern drone and reversed drum hits. Jimi’s solo is as incoherent as the solo on The Byrds’ Eight Miles High. And like all the best psychedelic tunes, it’s about love and drugs. The song’s closing line sums it all up very well, I think: “Not necessarily stoned, but beautiful.” RATING: 9/10

 

Part III: The Album

AreyouexpUK

Aesthetic: This album’s raw sound perfectly captures the band’s bluesy, psychedelic aesthetic. The production manages to sound “out there” without relying on complex instrumentation or all the other varied bells and whistles of the mid-sixties era. The album cover comes in two variants: the darker, drearier UK cover, and the brighter, colourful US cover. The US cover much better encapsulates the feel of the album. SCORE: 4/5

Artistic Merit: From a song writing perspective, as mentioned previously, this album isn’t as forward thinking as those of Jimi’s contemporaries. But while the songs may be basic at their core, the trio’s unique sound and enthusiastic performances elevate this album to one of the definitive offerings of the psychedelic era. SCORE: 4/5

Flow: Here’s where the album falls short. I’ve discussed in detail the elements that make each of the individual songs rewarding upon closer inspection. But Are You Experienced? just doesn’t manage to remain fresh and engaging enough for its duration to provide that rewarding album experience. The bluesy tunes can blend together for long stretches without any apparent hooks jumping out at you. SCORE: 5/10

CLOSING REMARKS:

An interesting question to pose is whether a talented guitarist with a blues background is capable of producing an album-length work that holds together on the merit of its song writing. While Jimi is undoubtedly leagues ahead as a guitarist, the compositions on this album aren’t exactly top-notch. Rolling Stone magazine’s Jon Landau, a bit unfairly, wrote in his 1967 review of the album that “Despite Jimi’s musical brilliance and the group’s total precision, the poor quality of the songs and the inanity of the lyrics too often get in the way.” I’d argue that the appeal lies in the sonic textures, and in the theme of duality (calm vs chaotic) that recurs throughout the album. Either way, this album represents the birth of a legend. My recommendation is to pick up the CD, since it features not only the UK album but also the related singles and B-sides.

FINAL SCORE: 71

 

Bloo Burds – Post Personality World

Bloo Burds - Post Personality World - cover

 

This one’s not so much a review as it is an announcement. I recently released an album of my own. It’s primarily an 80s style synthpop album, though there are elements of eurodance and hip hop as well. Outside of mastering and some guest features, it was made entirely by me in my bedroom. The album’s available on a variety of sites including:

Bandcamp

Spotify

iTunes (and Apple Music)

Google Play

Tidal

 

Just wanted to make a quick announcement about that. I’ve got (a lot) more reviews coming soon.